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The drowned world

Time is running out in Bangladesh where floods caused by climate change threaten to engulf entire is

Dhaka, Bangladesh

Shortly after dawn, a small seaplane hovers over the eroded chars (islands) of Bangladesh, and then touches down on the Jamuna River near one of a string of villages where some of the world's poorest people live. This is the front line in the battle against climate change, a place that should defy the fiercest sceptics. We emerge from the seven-seater, led by Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander, the Secretaries of State for Climate Change and International Development, respectively. The two cabinet ministers who are working so closely together - they are in matching chinos and blue shirts as if to prove the point - are visiting local people who are direct beneficiaries of aid from the UK. The UK is the single biggest bilateral donor to Bangladesh, with £125m given this year and £150m set aside for 2010.

The amount is largely welcomed by Bangladeshi officials. But some development NGOs have called for more, as £150m translates roughly into a pound per person per year. “Why not £250m?" they say. Critics also ask why it is that countries such as Pakistan are considered fit for direct grants, able to choose how they spend the money, while others, such as Bangladesh, are not.

Here, the DfID-funded Chars Livelihoods programme provides a one-off asset worth up to £150 (plus a small monthly stipend for 18 months) to households whose huts stand on plinths, raised above flooding danger levels. In the near-tropical heat - up to 40° by day and over 30° at midnight - Tasleema, a farmer's wife, thanks the ministers. "Before, it was a very difficult time," she says. "But after I got [six] cows, my life is better than before. I have been able to increase my livestock." In another hut, Rehena asks Miliband - through a translator - if he has children. I turns out they have babies born within a month of one another. The discovery is poignant, because so much of the British government's message, with a hundred days to go before the make-or-break climate-change summit in Copenhagen, is about the interconnected nature of this crisis.

For if, in the UK, the impact of climate change appears remote, it is ever present here (the highest ever flood was in 2007). Bangladesh is no bigger than England and Wales, but has more than 143 million people, most of whom live in lethal conditions of overcrowding and poverty: 119 million subsist on less than $2 a day.

The high-level British delegation will be moving on to meetings in New Delhi aimed at bridging the divide between a developing India, which has resisted greenhouse-gas reduction, and the developed west, which NGOs say must cut emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2020 to prevent a global temperature rise of 2° or more. The independent UK Committee on Climate Change argued in December 2008 that this pledge should be strengthened to 42 per cent for a 50-50 chance of preventing the rise, and the UK under Miliband has led the way with the promise of a 34 per cent reduction. According to a diplomatic source, when Alexander and Miliband met privately with the Bangladeshi prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, they urged her to make her voice heard on this issue at the World Climate Conference in Geneva, where she flew for preparatory talks on 1 September.

Alexander repeatedly stresses that the ministers will be going to India "not to lecture but to listen". But in an interview during the return flight to Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, both men (who first met in Miliband's kitchen in 1990, and are now on their first joint ministerial trip) spoke of the need for a deal in Copenhagen. "The situation in Bangladesh emphasises the urgency of the situation," says Miliband. "Climate change is not a theoretical prospect in the future but is actually happening at the moment. I was struck at the char over the difference the UK is making to tens of thousands of people." Alexander says he was moved by the "resilience, dignity and optimism" of the villagers he met on this, his third visit to Bangladesh.

Miliband accepts the "historic responsibility" of developed countries towards developing nations, which blame climate change on the west. He points out that between 1830 and 2000, 30 per cent of carbon emissions were from the US, 30 per cent from Europe and 6 per cent from China. But, he says, countries such as India have to accept the need for reductions, for their own sake. "Developing countries must be part of the solution . . . There is the moral case and the self-interested case - the 'better life' argument." For example, "Bangladesh is on the front line of climatechange, but India itself is affected by that change." Miliband, "an optimist by nature", says he is encouraged by the change of direction taken by the US under President Obama, and his pledge to cut emissions by 14 per cent by 2020 - a far cry from the Bush era.

Both ministers believe there is a "real dividing line" here - and it is true the programmes I have witnessed are among the government's unsung achievements. Bangladesh is a long way from the partisan Westminster hothouse, but it is worth remembering that while the Tories have ring-fenced international development spending from cuts, they have refused to match the government's promise of a cap of 10 per cent of aid funding to be spent on climate financing.

In addition, according to aid workers I met in Dhaka, the Tories have tried, in private discussions, to downplay the "historic responsibility" of the west for climate change.

For Miliband, Copenhagen is among "the most important things I'll ever to do in my life". And Alexander explains: "I came into politics to change things . . . For our generation of progressive politicians, climate change is the defining test."

The island on which Tasleema and Rehena live is likely to disappear within their lifetimes. In that sense, their plight is a microcosm of climate change across the world. And while the DfID programme is stemming the tide here, time is swiftly running out.


During the same chat, wedged inside the plane, Ed Miliband clears up a few domestic matters. First, a recent report suggesting he had considered quitting politics was "rubbish". Second, he won't discuss growing talk of him being a strong contender for the Labour leadership: "I'm getting on with what I'm doing and it's a huge privilege." He genuinely hates the subject, but he won't be able to avoid it for ever - and I watched him work the room in Bangladesh like a leader-in-waiting. Finally, on our very own Peter Wilby's proposal that he should enhance his own position by resigning on a matter of principle, he chuckles: "With friends like Peter Wilby . . ."

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the new progressives

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.